All Quiet on the Western Front has been widely praised as an antiwar novel, but William K. Pfeiler argues that more realistically the novel represents spoiled youth’s whining about the older generation. In the novel, Remarque depicts lively, healthy young men enslaved to the war god by their elders. It is thus their elders’ fault not only that many of them die, but that they are deprived of the “normal” experiences of late adolescence and are unable to return to civilization. This picture gives them a perfect excuse for aimlessness and lack of achievement after the war. Pfeiler questions whether Paul Bäumer would have fared any better had he not been caught up in World War I. At the time he wrote the following selection, Pfeiler taught at the University of Nebraska.
by William K. Pfeiler
Life at the front is hard. It is hard for any man, even the big, hulking farmhands who have not a soft bone in their bodies, even on the city boys who are always ready for a scrap. But how much harder for the meh who have learned to feel things deeply!
There is in Western culture a whole school of training which unconsciously or not—centers upon sensibility. The artists and musicians and poets must feel deeply all things, life itself. For how can they create works of art without a mental acuteness of sensation? And if their whole training is to develop delicacy of mind and feeling, they certainly cannot have had a more inept preparation for life at the front!
Some of the best of war novels present the reaction of men of feeling to the war. They do not agree with one another, and naturally, for individual response is the essence of their training. Some are disappointing, and some reward the reader. . . .
Neither in length, scope, nor importance can the work of Erich Maria Remarque, whose novel Im Westen nichts Neues [All Quiet on the Western Front] (1928), became a world sensation, be compared to the epic achievement of [Arnold] Zweig. Its success will perhaps never be satisfactorily explained, but one fact seems certain: it cannot be due exclusively to extraordinary merit.
Artistic but Simplistic
Remarque is an artist. By his impressionistic talent he knows how to draw characters and situations that engage attention and arouse deepest sympathy. His language is versatile and concise; his narrative is rich in contrast of situations and reflections, and his composition is done with a brilliant stage technique. Lyric and idyllic scenes alternate with the most lurid and coarsest sort of realism. The intricate problems of life and of the War are cleverly reduced to such plain propositions that even the poorest in spirit can grasp them. Just at the most favorable psychological moment, when Zweig had broken the ice and the universal antiwar sentiment had reached its very climax, Remarque’s story gave expression to the cry “No More War!”
But what are the facts and ideas of this book which claimed to tell of the fate of a whole generation?
A number of adolescents, college students, have been induced by their teacher to volunteer for war service. They and a few older men form a group somewhere at the Western Front Their fate is the subject of the story, which was to be “neither an accusation nor a confession” but an attempt to give a report of “a generation that was destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” These pretensions of the author must be refuted. Ample evidence shows that the heroes of Remarque are not representative of a whole generation, but only of a certain type. This is not to criticize Remarque for military and other inconsistencies, but it is significant that in a book which claims to be a report of the front by a front soldier, of 288 pages of text only about 80 pages deal with situations at or right behind the front, and even they are heavily interspersed with reflections. Furthermore, it may be characteristic that the actual life at the front is described in general terms without ever a definite location given, while scenes behind the front, at hospitals, at home, in the barracks, etc., are given in a more clearly outlined realism. The implication is obvious; it leaves little doubt that many of his situations are fictitious.
Unfair Indictment of the Older Generation
What is more, the ethical character of the book provokes critical reflection. Through sordid detail and the description of gruesome and inhuman happenings, through reflection and innuendo, the condemnation of war amounts in the last analysis to a sweeping indictment of the older generation. It is as simple as that, and it would not evoke any criticism on our part, the guilt of the elders being a genuine problem, were it not for the superficial way in which Remarque goes about his task. Their teachers get the blame for the boys’ being in a war which is of use “only to the Kaiser and the generals.” With adolescent swagger, they call all culture “nonsense” [Quatsch] because they have to be out at the front, and when they have a chance they will pay their torturers back. For example, we find the hero on leave at home and looking at his books, among them all of the classical writers. He says: “I have read them with honest zeal, but most of them did not quite appeal to me; so much the more did I appreciate the other books, the more modern ones.” This statement provides a good insight into the mind of the hero and his lack of appreciation for the values of the classical tradition. Again Lieutenant Mittelstedt “gets even” with his former teacher, now a drafted private. This particular scene, told with the malicious glee of an adolescent, is typical of the immature and sophomoric attitude of the heroes. So is the ever-recurring swagger and boastfulness of the young men who pose as old warriors well versed in all the tricks of warfare, though there is not one description of a feat actually executed, such as we find so abundantly and realistically in many other war books.
Individual incidents are given typical significance, less by an abstract process than by the exclusiveness with which they are presented. Thus the reader gets the impression that all officers are brutes; all teachers are cowardly shirkers who let others do the bloody and dangerous job of fighting for Germany’s glory while they stay safely at home; and all doctors are inhuman monsters. Against this world of brutality are set off in shining lights the simple but genuine virtues of the common soldiers. They are all good fellows, and it arouses our sympathy to see them fall prey to power-drunk, sadistic superiors.
Immature and Biased
Immaturity and partiality by omission detract from the ethical import of this work which must be admitted to have force and human appeal. That the writer projects his 1927 mentality into the life of young World War soldiers is perhaps not so great a defect as is his wilfully narrowed outlook. Im Westen nichts Neues is scarcely a serious ethical document. Rather it is symptomatic of an age that saw the final revelation of the war in the adolescent self-pity, resentment, and sentimentality the novel embodies. Really it is the story of an egocentric, immature youngster of whom one may well wonder how he would have developed without the war. There is, indeed, plenty of authority for holding that the war helped many to find themselves and prove their mettle, and that it also exposed the brittle human substance that might have been broken by life anyway, without ever having been exposed to the destructive shells of war. It goes without saying that this observation—contradicting point-blank Remarque’s claim to speak for a whole generation—implies neither that the war did not destroy the best of human values, nor that war was justifiable because it developed character.
SOURCE: War and the German Mind, by William K Pfeiler. 1941, Columbia University Press.